Simple Words and Storytelling: Communicating Science to a General Audience

Posted by Olivia Rooke-Devoy (BSc(Hons) Candidate)

If a tree falls in the woods and [we don’t communicate it to someone], does it make a sound?

How important is it that scientists communicate and disseminate their ideas to the wider public?

fallentree

Credit: Miri Schroeter

Scientific communities now face climate change denial, anti-vaccination movements, ‘detox’ diets and, bizarrely, a resurgence of Flat-Earth believers. In view of these challenges, it seems that science communication is just as important as the science itself. Ultimately, by educating societies, we as researchers encourage better social and political decision making.

However, science communication is challenging. David Chambers’ well-known ‘Draw a Scientist’ test (1983) demonstrates that, from a young age, people view scientists as aloof and antisocial. My own research of urban lawns in Auckland has stirred controversy. Many people have rejected the premise immediately: “I like your idea, but I won’t stop mowing my lawn!”. Preconceived notions of science and the emotive subjects we study make for critical (and often unfriendly) audiences.

Faced with these difficulties, how do we communicate complex scientific ideas, so general audiences understand? Common techniques, such as using less jargon, sound great in theory but are hard in practice. For example, the Ten Hundred Words of Science blog challenges scientists to use the 1000 most commonly used English words to describe their research. Here’s my own attempt:

“What are the impacts of varying mowing regimes on lawn species assemblages in urban lawns?” becomes “what happens if city people cut green low-growing things less?”

Have a go at the challenge yourself.

Explaining scientific ideas in a straightforward way is difficult. However, using ‘simple’ language and crafting a science narrative makes our subjects accessible. Storytelling in science, taking the form of analogies and personal stories of successes and struggles, connects many types of people. This form of communication opens science to previously-excluded groups and makes science more inclusive and diverse.

Contemporary communication is instantaneous and global. In this modern age, what is a ‘scientist’? Overall, I believe that part of what makes a scientist is the ability to communicate ideas. If a tree falls in the woods and you don’t tell me, how can I care that it made a sound?

Further Reading:

Chambers, D. W. (1983). Stereotypic images of the scientist: The draw-a-scientist test. Science Education, 67(2), 255–265. https://doi.org/10.1002/sce.3730670213

Salmon, R., & Priestley, R. (2015). A future for public engagement with science in New Zealand. Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand, 45(2), 101–107. https://doi.org/10.1080/03036758.2015.1023320

 

Olivia is an Honours student at the School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland. Her research is focused on encouraging low-cost, biodiverse lawns in Auckland. She is supervised by Dr Bruce Burns. For further information regarding this research, please visit https://urbanlawnsproject.weebly.com/

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One thought on “Simple Words and Storytelling: Communicating Science to a General Audience

  1. I think someone like David Attenborough has been able to communicate to the wider public while using more complex vocabulary but with an enthusiasm for the subject matter.. I also think that using the first thousand words is rather restricting because you would need to use words like grass and lawn etc. You should be able to use words used in every day conversation.

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